When Siobhan Burke, an organizer for ICE-Free Capital District, told the organizing community that one of our neighbors was in need, we responded. Due to the precarity of their situation, she couldn’t tell us the name of who needed help, or any specifics about their case, just that they were undocumented and at risk of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detaining and deporting them. They came to ICE-Free Capital District for help because they were unable to work and their landlord had threatened to evict them in several days unless they could quickly raise several hundred dollars. Within a day, our GoFundMe campaign raised enough to cover their rent. Within 48 hours, we raised enough to cover three months’ rent.
While New York is nationally known as a “blue state,” much of the area outside of the NYC metropolitan area is not. Our county, Rensselaer, voted for Trump, and Troy, its biggest town of 50,000, elected a Republican City Council in 2015. As in much of the country, things changed after the 2016 elections. In early 2017, over a hundred people attended the first post-election meeting of Albany New Sanctuary for Immigrants. Before the election, this group had usually counted on single-digit attendance. Top priorities were providing direct aid to immigrants and taking political action to oppose Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. At the same time, Capital District DSA’s numbers swelled, and members organized to form the first Troy branch.
Recognizing the need for a region-wide approach, organizers created ICE-Free Capital District as an effort to stand with some of the most marginalized members of our community. Representing New York’s Capital District, which includes Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Saratoga Springs, and the surrounding region, ICE-Free Capital District provides direct aid to families which ICE threatens with persecution. We also organize to improve conditions for immigrant communities, regardless of their status. Simultaneously, affiliated activists in Troy started the Troy Sanctuary Campaign to designate the city as a “sanctuary city,” where officials would not cooperate with ICE.
Our Troy DSA chapter is participating in this movement as enthusiastic organizers, collaborators, and supporters by coordinating direct aid and actions which demonstrate solidarity with vulnerable communities. In addition, through the Troy Sanctuary Campaign, we are flexing our collective organizing skills and building community power.
Building Solidarity: Growing Networks of Trust and Resistance
Today, ICE-Free Capital District coordinates solidarity, direct aid, and accompaniment to vulnerable members of immigrant communities. ICE-Free Capital District started this work by accompanying immigrants to their check-in appointments at the ICE office in nearby Latham. They also responded to requests for fundraising and transportation.
Solidarity work really took off when ICE captured and imprisoned Dalila Yeend, a single mother living in Troy with two children. Prior to ICE imprisoning Dalila, a Troy police officer pulled her over for rolling through a stop sign. The Troy Police Department charged and detained Dalila for driving without a license, as undocumented immigrants are barred from having drivers’ licenses in New York. The TPD held her until ICE collected her and sent her to a facility several hours away for detention.
In response, our growing solidarity community banded together to support Dalila and her children. We organized a fundraising campaign to pay for her legal defense, while coordinating to meet her transportation needs and other necessities. After two months of detention, the federal government dropped her deportation case, undoubtedly thanks to the lawyer the community fundraised for. Today, Dalila is reunited with her family and has applied a green card and work permit. While those applications are pending, the community is supporting her financially.
Our work with Dalila popularized the Troy Sanctuary Campaign and built trust among undocumented community members, encouraging them to reach out and seek help. This, in turn, provided further opportunities for community members to provide solidarity and support, such as the Troy family seeking help with their rent. To Siobhan, the support network we are building provides a blueprint for popular resistance to current immigration policy: “I think that if we could scale that solidarity up we could really give ICE a run for the money. And it is our goal to abolish ICE. This is one big piece of how we could do that.”
Of course, solidarity comes in many forms, not just pooling money. Community members have stepped up in a variety of ways, from providing transportation to accompanying Dalila at a recent hearing on the Sanctuary City resolution. Sanctuary campaigner and DSA member David Banks is one of many who have participated. To David, “It’s just being someone with a car, really... it’s not hard.”
Building Community Power: Organizing for Sanctuary in Troy
In the first Troy city election after Trump took office, voters gave the Democrats control of our City Council, and added two progressive, non-machine Democrats to the council: David Bissember and Anasha Cummings. Troy DSA and ICE-Free Capital Region did not make electoral endorsements, though many members volunteered for their campaigns. While supporters did not make Sanctuary status a focus of the campaign, opponents did, distributing a fear-mongering mailer.
The mailer pitched Democratic candidates as the sanctuary slate and posed a scenario where local cops were powerless to stop an illegal immigrant drunk driver from mowing down the children of Troy. Voters overwhelmingly rejected this message. With this shift in power, the Troy Sanctuary campaign called on the new council members to move Sanctuary status forward. In November 2018, Council Member Bissember finally introduced the Troy Sanctuary City resolution, to the applause of sanctuary campaigns and the consternation of opponents. The debate mainly took place in two forums: Facebook, and in-person meetings. On Facebook, opponents, including the Troy Police Benevolent Association and its supporters, seemed to dominate the discourse, while at City Council meetings and public forums, supporters turned out in far greater numbers. The campaign turned out over a hundred community members to two separate Council meetings on the issue. Opponents appeared in smaller numbers.
However, just as the resolution seemed about to pass, two key Democrats announced that they would not support it: Council Member TJ Kennedy, whose vote was needed to pass it, and Mayor Patrick Madden, who would need to sign it. Both emphasized that they weren’t necessarily opposed to the measure, but lamented that the issue hadn’t been raised in the “right way.” They claimed it had “divided” the community, and further community outreach and dialogue was necessary. This began a pattern of community meetings and presentations where supporters repeatedly outnumbered opponents. Yet, neither official has changed their position. As of January 2019, it’s unclear what will happen next: whether a vote will be held, and whether it will pass.
Next Steps and Lessons Learned
Today, advocates are evaluating successes and determining their next steps. To Siobhan, the takeaway from two years of organizing around immigration issues in Troy is that “support for immigrants is even greater than we anticipated. We were concerned about turning people out for the public meetings, and then we were able to get more than 100 people out more than twice in one week.” Unfortunately, as she also notes, the lack of support from local elected Democrats demonstrates that “the treachery of liberals knows no bounds.”
To David, the next steps are clear: stake out our position and make the matter a litmus test for Democrats. As he concisely explains, “There are two positions: support or betrayal of our immigrant community. You have to pick one.” Though calling for a vote carries the risks of losing, “that at least frees us up to do something else.”
The next steps will provide a test of our organizing strength and clarify the allegiances of local elected Democratic officials. In the meantime, we are growing our community and finding new avenues to get the word out. While Troy neighborhood Facebook groups are frequently cesspools of reactionary and xenophobic commentary, David has embraced “normie shit” tactics by starting a rival community Facebook group for his neighborhood after being kicked out of the mainstream one.
For those interested in replicating this work, Siobhan offers the following advice: “Our group is completely volunteer-based and most of the people who have gotten involved didn’t have any special qualification. They’re not wealthier or less busy than the average American; most of us have jobs and/or kids, and we’ve still managed to scale up our ability to offer direct aid and have an impact on local politics. I would encourage everybody to do that and get involved and start figuring out what they can do in their community.”